Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Will Walker Kill Government Accountability Board?

He risks having a new, untried agency run 2016 spring and fall presidential elections.

By - Jul 27th, 2015 11:05 am
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Gov. Scott Walker. Photo from the State of Wisconsin.

Gov. Scott Walker. Photo from the State of Wisconsin.

How ironic: Republican Gov. Scott Walker and GOP legislative leaders want to dismantle the state agency scheduled to oversee the counting of more than 3 million votes for President next year – just as Walker will make a historical “favorite son” bid for the White House.

Now that four Wisconsin Supreme Court justices have shut down John Doe investigations of Walker campaigns and his conservative supporters, and a Wall Street Journal editorial noted that the state’s top election officer met with the IRS official who oversaw tax probes of conservative groups, it’s open season on the Government Accountability Board (GAB).

The Republican-controlled Legislature should create “something completely new that is truly accountable to the people,” Walker said last week. “More so than an investigation, I think it’s appropriate just to get rid (of GAB) and replace it.”

When Walker calls for “truly accountable” officials, that’s Capitol-speak for partisan elected officials – Republicans and Democrats – or their designees. That could be a return to the old Elections Board the GAB replaced in 2008.

The GAB was formed from the old Elections and Ethics boards. It is governed by retired judges, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate, who oversee GAB Director Kevin Kennedy and his staff. Kennedy has worked for the GAB and its predecessor state elections board since 1979 and has long experience in the field.

But Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said the Supreme Court ruling and Wall Street Journal editorial showed that GAB “disregarded state law and played by its own rules.” Although he has said Kennedy should be replaced, Vos last week called for an investigation of whether GAB had violated First Amendment rights.

“The citizens of Wisconsin have the right to know what laws are being broken behind closed doors at the very agency that is supposed to ensure accountability in government and elections,” Vos added.

Yes, that’s the same Speaker Vos who got Walker and Senate Republicans to initially endorse a sweeping change in Open Records Laws that would have sealed all “deliberative” documents used by legislators and governors as they make new laws. That change was quickly killed, however.

Whatever you think of Kennedy and the GAB, it’s Job One is overseeing elections. Next year, GAB – or its successor – must work with 72 county clerks, resolve disputes at 3,586 polling precincts statewide and run April elections, including the April 5 presidential primary, and Nov. 8 elections for President, U.S. Senate, eight U.S. House seats and state Assembly and Senate.

National polls say Walker is a top-tier GOP candidate for President. If he’s still at or near the top of the 16-candidate pack on April 5, he will want to win Wisconsin’s presidential primary . And, on Nov. 8, if he’s the GOP presidential nominee, he’ll want to win Wisconsin – something Republican presidential candidates have not done since 1984.

Walker will want – and need – the elections process to work in Wisconsin in 2016, including the new requirement that voters must show a photo ID to vote. The GAB oversaw two of the toughest election tests in Wisconsin history: The recount of a statewide election, which determined that Supreme Court Justice David Prosser narrowly won re-election in April 2011. And the recall election that Walker survived in 2012. Walker was the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall vote.

Here’s the question: Can a new agency, run by someone new, handpicked by Republicans who control the Capitol, oversee the 2016 elections without any disruption?

Still bound by a secrecy order that is part of the John Doe process, Kennedy cannot publicly discuss the GAB’s role in the second Doe investigation of whether Walker’s campaign and groups backing him illegally coordinated their efforts before the 2012 recall.

But, in a rare public plea for GAB to avoid the death penalty, Kennedy said everyone acknowledges that the agency can run elections: “We receive strong, positive feedback every day regarding the assistance we provide to local clerks, candidates and political committees, public officials, and voters.  Almost all of that work is completely separate from the political dramas that make the headlines.”

In 2007, when the new GAB was looking for office space, it decided to rent in a private building instead of in a state office building. Why? Having the state Department of Administration as your landlord might interfere with its mission of impartiality.

Steven Walters is a senior producer with the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at stevenscwalters@gmail.com

16 thoughts on “The State of Politics: Will Walker Kill Government Accountability Board?”

  1. PMD says:

    I’ve got to think that even Walker supports are concerned about the stealth attempt to overhaul the open records request process and the refusal to turn over records while claiming “deliberative privilege” or whatever nonsense they’re claiming. And now the GAB might be overhauled, and not for the better. All these moves toward more secrecy and blatant partisanship. Not good.

  2. Gerald Braden says:

    I can hardly wait till the courageous people that have filed the several law suits in opposition to the way in which this specious John Doe investigation ran amuck, are justly rewarded for having been terrorized by the DA’s office, tied in with the GAB’s Kennedy, and well documented by the Wall Street Journal, simply because the liberal agenda in this city does everything it can to maintain control and is often protected by the JS dead tree, which will hardly report on facts on the opposite side of their agendas. So I am not surprised by this presumptuous headline here. How intensely outrageous can an institution like Urban Milwaukee dare to suppose such a ridiculous stance as to suggest that the GAB would be killed under Gov. Scott Walkers administration. The truth be told, but never ever on the UM page, that the dragon is going to be painted red, because Mr. Kennedy is indeed in trouble up to his b— , that is belt, for his own participation in these matters where conservatives were not very well protected under his watch and that his alignment with DA Chisholm will come back to haunt him too. It’s taken a long arguous road to begin to clean up the muck that has been smelling up the politics in this state for a very long time. Even the US AG’s office has been linked by the democratic machine, which is out of control. May these people who will be found guilty soon, be also out of work. Then lets replace the board at the GAB with forthright people, who will work for the protection of all the citizens of this state. Your organization at UM is not doing a very good job of bringing people together who may differ politically. In fact you often fail us. We need unity in this city, but 1st it needs a good house cleaning. How about a fresh conservative to take the helm of the mayor’s job next year, and lets see what can be done, as it is being done in a Detroit City, where the house was inspected, cleaned out, lawsuits filed and now it slowly but surely is coming back around as a fiscally sound, self supporting entity. Say it with me…”Milwaukee’s next mayor will be a Conservative.” Now there’s a plan that will work.

  3. PMD says:

    Right because the Wall Street Journal isn’t partisan at all. Such a credible source, running leaks from O’Keefe and printing ridiculously one-sided op-eds. But fine you hate the John Doe and Chisholm, and you think the GAB is flawed. The right way to fix the GAB is to completely transform it and fill it with partisans selected by Walker and/or the GOP Legislature? That won’t turn it into a toothless group looking out for those in power who created it?

  4. Paul says:

    Kennedy is not bound by a secrecy order of the John Doe, it has ended and others are starting to talk, why not him?

  5. PMD says:

    Why do you care if Kennedy talks? What do you think he has to say about it?

  6. Paul says:

    I care to know who was actually behind the John Does and what exactly were they trying to accomplish

  7. PMD says:

    Why do you care to know? You were adamantly opposed to the John Doe and you are happy with the State Supreme Court’s decision to end it.

  8. Paul says:

    And now it’s time to find out who and what was behind it and if acceptable bring charges against anyone that did any wrong doing.

  9. PMD says:

    Who do you suspect was behind it? What charges do you see as being possible?

  10. Paul says:

    Not sure, that’s why I’d like to hear Kennedy talk

  11. TF says:

    “Who is behind the John Doe?” Uh, Paul, it was approved by five chief judges and five district attorneys, who appointed a Republican special prosecutor.

  12. Paul says:

    TF, the question is, who is behind the targeting of conservative groups

  13. PMD says:

    Prosecutors were investigating whether or not Walker’s campaign illegally collaborated with ostensibly independent groups, such as the Wisconsin Club for Growth. That’s common knowledge. Why do you think someone was “targeting conservative groups?”

  14. Paul says:

    PMD, take of the blinders, conservative groups across the nation have been targeted by the IRS, we know why but what we need to know is who was giving the orders

  15. PMD says:

    What does the John Doe have to do with the IRS? Who do you think was “giving the orders” regarding the John Doe? You are so convinced that someone was nefariously targeting conservative groups. Whom do you suspect?

    And please quit being such a massive hypocrite. You see everything through a partisan lens and then accuse others of having blinders. It’s so absurd.

  16. Paul says:

    PMD, both the Does and the inquiries by the IRS were done to shut down conservative PAC groups . Who’s behind it,hopefully we’ll find out. How am I a hypocrite, all I’m doing is asking questions, while you just blindly sit there.

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